NiGHTS – 1996 Developer Interview
This NiGHTS interview is actually a compilation of several interviews originally featured in magazines like Sega Saturn Magazine and Famitsu. It goes into some depth about the theme of dreams, character design, and the unique gameplay of NiGHTS. Particularly surprising is the team’s initial resistance to 3D and polygons. Naka also professes some Jim Henson-like aspirations for a character who could appeal to children worldwide.
Yuji Naka – Producer
Naoto Oshima – Director
Takashi Iizuka – Lead Designer
Norihiro Nishiyama – CG Director
—How does it feel to have finished NiGHTS, Sonic Team’s first game for the Saturn?
Naka: It ended up taking far longer than we expected. Being our first experience with this hardware, it was very difficult to get a clear picture of the overall schedule. When we were making the Sonic games on the Megadrive, we generally knew what our pace would be, how long each part would take, etc. For NiGHTS, it was our first time using CD-ROM media, and the Saturn hardware has much more power—we didn’t really know how much it could do until we got into it. (laughs)
Oshima: It was nice to hear “there’s still room! we’ve still got space!” even by the very end of the development. (laughs)
Naka: We were trying to figure out how to use all that 560MB available to us. (laughs) Though when we began making NiGHTS, we thought it would only take 100MB or so, but the music and the movies ate up a lot of memory. At one point we even talked about making it a 2CD game.
—How does the finished NiGHTS compare to the game you envisioned when you began the development?
Naka: It turned out to be a completely different game from what we first imagined! We initially planned to make a game about a flying character, rendered in beautifully drawn 2D sprite art… a sidescroller closer in feel to Sonic. Our team had spent most of it’s time making Sonic games on the Megadrive, and to be honest, at the time we simply didn’t know that the Saturn would be able to do 3D of this caliber. So we put our effort towards making the most visually appealing 2D sprite game we could. As the development went on, however, we gradually came to realize that the Saturn could handle whatever we threw at it.
—NiGHTS was going to be a 2D game?
Naka: Initially we were very resistant to using polygons—I was extremely against it. We didn’t think we could create appealing characters with polygons. With traditional pixel sprite art, our designers knew how to be very expressive, but we just didn’t see how we could convey that with a character rendered in simple polygons. But one of our designers said “let’s just try it.” I was really stubborn about it all. Some of that was probably just the typical authority complex of a Producer. (laughs)
As we experimented with 2D, however, and the “dream” theme came into focus, we soon realized that the best way to bring this dreamworld to life and give it a proper sense of “reality” was with 3D polygons (actually, at first we tried pre-rendered CG sprites). I’m very glad now that we went with polygons.
Oshima: 2D sprites were always a backup option though, if the polygon approach had turned out to look too clunky or angular.
—Why were you so resistant to 3D?
Naka: Because the TV screen is a flat, two-dimensional screen, we reasoned, you can’t really get the sense of depth and perspective in it that a 3D game would require. How would you be able to discern between objects that were close-up and those far away? We just didn’t think we’d be able to create interesting gameplay in a completely 3D environment.
I’d seen a lot of “3D” games before, but very few of them made me feel like I was really playing in three dimensions. And what were you usually doing in those games? Shooting. But the targetting cursor always had computer-assisted aiming, so basically you weren’t playing the game, the computer was. Even the good 3D games were like that. But one of our design principles at Sonic Team was that we didn’t want to include guns and shooting mechanics. If you do that it ultimately just turns into a STG game. On the other hand, making a difficult platformer without weapons, one where you just make difficult jumps and such—that also wouldn’t appeal to the average person.
It was extremely important to us to have a strong connection between what happens on the screen and the controls, and that those controls be responsive and fun. So 3D was out. We did try some early experiments with full 3D, but as we thought, it didn’t feel right. But pure 2D would have looked “old” to today’s audiences. What we settled on is the game you see today: the gameplay appeal of 2D with a 3D presentation.
I wouldn’t have been against a game where you fly around in true 3D—if we could have made it a good game. It’s very difficult. Maybe we will do that in the future, but we went this way for now. For us, this was our very first Saturn development, and as such it was a lot of experimentation and finding our way. We consider NiGHTS a first step.
—The movies are in 3D, too.
Nishiyama: Yeah, it’s 3DCG. Considering the global market, we thought there’d be less resistance to 3DCG than 2D anime. I don’t know if that’s really true though. (laughs) If we had taken out the opening movies, it would have really cheapened the whole process by which you become Nights. We don’t want this to be seen as a game where you just control this character Nights and fly around; rather, it was important to us that the player feels like he or she is becoming Nights. Since that happens by dreaming, it was necessary then to show the waking world first: and movies were a good method to show that reality.
Naka: The movies portray the dreams of Claris and Elliot, but we wanted them to appear fairly realistic. It was our intention to make it hard for the player to discern where that exact boundary between dreams and reality was, with the movies. But to be honest I was also against the movies at first. I didn’t think we needed them. But Oshima said they were a must, so… first they created storyboards and a screenplay, and seeing those made me realize it could work out, and I gave the go-sign.
Even then I was worried though. Couldn’t we do this without CG movies? But in the end, I’m glad we added them. They give a goal for players who want to see them, and they allow players to get more emotionally involved. Really, I’m so glad we made them—and this experience really changed the way I think about movies and games. I wouldn’t even mind seeing a whole feature-length movie in this style, even.
However, I don’t really agree with the whole distinction people sometimes make between 2D and 3D. Our intention in choosing 3D for Nights wasn’t so we could go around and show off, “this is 3D!” Likewise for the movies, we don’t want to promote it that way. It’s simple: this was the best form in which to express what we wanted to express, and we don’t have any special attachment to that form per se. We just want people to play the game and have it naturally occur that “this is really pretty, this looks so realistic.”
—Iizuka, looking back now, what were some of the struggles you had with NiGHTS?
Iizuka: As Naka said, NiGHTS started development as a traditional sidescroller. There was an apparent contradiction, in my mind, between our desire to retain those 2D sidescroller controls, and evoking in the player the sense of depth needed to make you feel like you’re really flying. That was biggest worry. But after working and re-working it, trying out many different approaches, I think we managed to resolve that contradiction of “2D controls in a 3D space.”
—And how about the story and setting of NiGHTS?
Oshima: From the start, we didn’t want to tread on the world of Sonic. I would say that, whereas Sonic has more of a “gameworld”, with NiGHTS ended up being based more around symbolic “themes.” We wanted to do in NiGHTS everything we couldn’t do in Sonic, you see.
Naka: I actually think we did a better job building the world in NiGHTS than we did in Sonic. A lot of that is thanks to that central theme of “dreams”. We started with the question: “where do dreams come from?” That took us on a deep journey, ultimately leading us to explore depth psychology, the unconscious, and dream interpretation. To an extent all of our sprites and artwork are an attempt to reflect those dream ideas. I think that really gave NiGHTS a unique world.
There have been many heroes who have existed in games, but all of them are characters you never get to meet. Their existence is purely fictional. With NiGHTS, we wanted a game that would make them feel real. Children may believe that Ultraman lives in Nebula M-78, but that place doesn’t really exist. But wouldn’t it be awesome if, as game designers, we could create that place, give it real form and shape?
The first idea I had for NiGHTS was not dreams. I had the image of a rainbow in mind, and at the foot of a rainbow is the entry to another world… A rainbow arch touches the ground in two locations, right? I was imagining a story where you’d traverse between the two sides of the rainbow, with NiGHTS being the character who lived within that space.
In reality, of course, you can’t physically approach a rainbow. No one has ever done it. But if I could get kids to think, “let’s go find the foot of that rainbow!”, then I could create that reality in our game. That kind of thing interested me. And so our initial theme for NiGHTS was rainbows, not dreams. After that, I did a lot of actual research on rainbows.
But we eventually changed our minds about that rainbow theme. You see, we’re citizens of the world, and we wanted to make a game for all the children of the world, not just Japan. In Japan there’s a lot of rain and you see rainbows frequently, but I think there are kids out there who have never seen a rainbow in their life. Those children wouldn’t be able to enter into the reality we wanted to construct, so we tried to think of a better concept, and that’s when we hit on dreams. Dreams are fascinating, aren’t they? Everyone has them, yet they’re full of mysteries. And everyone feels that their own dreams have a sense of reality. We started researching dreams more, and everyone started getting obsessed with dreams. (laughs) Iizuka got really into dream intrepretation. For awhile there, I was having him interpret my dreams every morning. (laughs)
Iizuka: Yeah, when I got to work, there’d be an e-mail there from Naka telling me his dreams that morning. (laughs)
Naka: That’s how interesting it all was to us. We don’t understand our dreams entirely, even though they’re from our own minds! We felt like we’d found the perfect material for NiGHTS. I think it was a really good choice.
—What were some of the challenges of creating this “dream world” ?
Naka: Well, the very first designs that Oshima drew were very different from where we ended up. He interpreted the theme in a more fantastic way, a fantasy world of dreams. When I saw that, I told him that no one really has dreams like that. Dreams are usually closer to reality, and bear more of a resemblance to one’s inner psyche and subconscious. Everyone dreams, so I said let’s try and create a more natural image, something closer to the dreams we all have. The world of NiGHTS (in this game at least) derives from that way of thinking.
Iizuka: Since this was a world of “dreams” we were depicting—the mysterious world of the unconscious—we had to understand the whole thing before we could begin creating it. Take an island. If it’s a real island, it’s easy enough to create. Once we settled on the “dream” concept, though, it meant we had to design and create every detail of that island ex nihilo.
—How satisfied are you with how the gameplay turned out, now that NiGHTS is finished?
Naka: Very. We’ve achieved what we set out to accomplish. Everyone in the development agreed that we wanted to make a game which, like Sonic, just felt good to play from the first moment you pick up the controller. That, and we wanted the game to be fun even after you’ve beaten it multiple times and got really good. We didn’t want to push anything on the players in terms of the gameplay: it should just feel fun to pick up and play and move around, and in that regard, I think we succeeded.
I also think NiGHTS feels more like a race game than an action game, or maybe “an action game you can play again and again.” You can see that in the score attack and A-Life systems.
Also, at the start of the development, some of the staff thought we should strengthen the time attack and “speedy” aspect of the gameplay, and reward players for going through the courses as fast as possible. We actually did try that idea, but what happened is that everyone started flying in straight lines! We wanted NiGHTS to feature elegant, beautiful flight, with players making graceful curves and turns in the air. So we scrapped the time attack idea.
Oshima: I thought the time attack style was fun. It had it’s moments. But yeah, beautiful it was not. (laughs)
Naka: We wanted to keep that mechanic in, though, and so freeing the Ideya as fast as possible is a key to good scoring. After that you can relax and take your time flying around gracefully; there’s really two gameplay styles in there.
—When did you come up with the idea for the analogue joystick?
Naka: To answer this I have to go back to the very beginning of the development, but we actually had the skeletal frame of NiGHTS completed last summer (1995). However, at that time it was much more of an attack-centric game, the kind of button-masher that hurts your thumbs. (laughs) It was rated highly by the action gamers at Sega, but we determined that it would be too hardcore for the average player. At that point we began to feel that NiGHTS would need a new, non-traditional controller. After much research, by Fall we had officially adopted the analogue controller you see today.
We actually came up with nearly 100 controller designs. (laughs) We even challenged ourselves to come up with a control system that didn’t use your hands. There was a “no-touch ESP style controller” (laughs), a controller where you used your feet, and more. We even made a prototype of that foot controller, it was huge! (laughs)
—Mario 64 uses analogue controls too, were you thinking about that?
Naka: I saw a demo last year at Nintendo Space World and was worried for a second when I saw a scene with Mario flying. (laughs) But I realized that they’re going in a different direction with their game, so I’m not worried now.
—NiGHTS features both a boy and girl as protagonists. Was there any special intention behind that choice?
Iizuka: In the beginning of the development, Elliot was the only main character, but after thinking it over, we added Claris so it would be fun for female players, too. And NiGHTS is meant to be a game that represents everyone’s dreams, so naturally it made sense for there to be both men and women to be represented.
—Please tell us how you created the character of Nights.
Naka: I believe our role as game creators is to give dreams to children all over the world. So we had a distinct sense of duty with this project, to share with the world a “dream-inspiring” character.
Oshima: But there was a lot of trial and error before we came up with the character Nights. The initial reason we made Nights a human character is that we didn’t want to do another animal-human hybrid like Sonic; however, Nights’ final design was more informed by our gameplay idea of a character who glides and soars through the sky with ease. We wanted the design to evoke a certain nostalgia, but also to feel new… I think we spent most of our effort on making sure it didn’t look too old-fashioned.
Naka: As we did with Sonic, again with NiGHTS we conducted some very thorough market research on what kids enjoy today. We placed a special emphasis on the American and Japanese markets. But we got a very encouraging response from England, too, so I’m hoping NiGHTS will be a game that helps us really break into the European market.
Oshima: You know how NiGHTS is purple, right? Actually, in the toy industry, the conventional wisdom is that “kids don’t like the color purple.” But for part of our research, we tested children’s response to purple, and it was very favorable. I’m hoping that Nights will put to rest this jinx that the toy industry has about this color! We’re also hoping to really develop Nights as a character, and be able to portray Nights in a variety of costumes and holiday colors, from Valentine’s Day, to Christmas and Halloween…
—Were there any other influences for Nights’ character besides dreams?
Oshima: One of our ideas was to give him a “sacred” image. Also, we wanted a character who would be suitable for the dawn of a new era, a character who would be ready to greet the 21st century. In these uncertain times we’re living in, “know thyself” is more important than ever. But we also wanted a positive character, someone people would look at and think, “the future looks bright.”
—Is there anything you’re trying to convey to people through NiGHTS?
Naka: If people play NiGHTS and it gives them an opportunity to introspect and think about themselves, that would be great. That’s the kind of image we had in our mind when we created the character Nights.
Iizuka: There’s another “you” inside yourself that you may have forgotten or buried. You can go on adventures with this dream persona, and through them, you can reconstruct your own self-image. And that’s the very experience Elliot and Claris have as dreamers in NiGHTS.
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